Book Reviews: ‘The Doctrine of DNA’, & ‘The Spanish Anarchists – The Heroic years 1868-1936’

Possibility of change

The Doctrine of DNA by R.C. Lewontin. Penguin Books, £5.99.

Every socialist should read this book. In less than 130 pages one of the co-authors of the excellent Not in Our Genes brilliantly argues against the sociobiologists’ claim that all human existence is controlled by our DNA.

His book, subtitled “Biology & Ideology”, is a collection of radio lectures he gave on CBS. The language is simple and straightforward and demands no specialised knowledge of genetics.

He is devastating when dealing with the role of science in the modern world:

“Science uses commodities and is part of the process of commodity production. Science uses money. People earn their living by science, and as a consequence the dominant social and economic forces in society determine to a large extent what science does and how it does it.”

He shows that despite its limited medical application a great deal of money is being spent on the Human Genome Project. This programme makes great philosophical and social claims that he, as one of the world’s leading geneticists, shows are nonsense. He further claims that the programme is lining the pockets of companies. “No prominent molecular biologist of my acquaintance is without a financial stake in the biotechnology business.”

He is scathing in his attack on claims that there are genes that shape aggression, xenophobia, sexism and racism. His last chapter “Science as Social Action” is an excellent summation of the pointless “nature or nurture” debate because he takes a thoroughly dialectical view, one that could not be bettered.



Anarchist history

The Spanish Anarchists. The Heroic years 1868-1936 by Murray Bookchin. AK Press. £13.95.

This is a reprint, with a new introduction, of a history of anarchism Spain until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 that first appeared in 1976.

Spain was the one European country where the organised working-class movement embraced anarchism rather than Social Democracy as its ideology. Bookchin traces the historical reasons for this. One was that everywhere the workers’ movement emerged out of the leftwing of the bourgeois radical movement and in Spain the bourgeois radicals were Federalists, i.e. wanted a constitution for Spain similar to that in Switzerland where power would rest with cantons rather than with a central state.

Anarchist ideas were introduced into Spain at the end of the 1860s by the followers of Bakunin within the First International. Contrary to the myth cultivated by anarchists, the dispute between Marx and Bakunin within this organisation was not between an authoritarian Marx and a libertarian Bakunin but between a Marx who saw the workers’ movement as an open democratic movement and Bakunin who advocated that it should be directed behind the scenes by a secret society of dedicated revolutionaries. Bakunin was booted out of the First International not for being a libertarian but for being a proto-Leninist vanguardist. Even Bookchin, who writes as an anarchist, is compelled by the facts to concede:

“Bakunin’s ‘International Brotherhood’ has been dealt with derision as a hierarchical, elitist organization which stands in blatant contradiction to his libertarian principles. This contradiction in my view is very real. Bakunin had intended the ‘International Brotherhood’ to be a secret organization of Anarchist militants, led in tightly disciplined fashion by a highly centralized group of initiates—indeed, by what amounted to a revolutionary general staff” (p. 41).

This idea that revolutionaries should organise as a masonic-type secret society was another bourgeois-revolutionary tradition inherited by Spanish anarchists which lasted right down to the 1930s when the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) infiltrated and came to control the syndicalist CNT (National Confederation of Labour) which had been set up by militant trade unionists in 1911.

The CNT was not an anarchist body but anarchists had an input in its organisation and ideology. As a result the CNT adopted as its long-term aim “libertarian communism” rather than state-capitalist nationalisation as elsewhere in Europe. This did allow it to avoid the mistakes made by trade unionists elsewhere of supporting and even sponsoring parties that stood for state capitalism, but it was only a long-term aim and in practice the CNT acted as a militant trade union seeking immediate improvements for workers within capitalism.

The FAI—which was essentially a secret anarchist terrorist organisation set up in 1927 under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship—regarded this as reformism and sought to use the CNT in its plans for insurrection. This met resistance from within the ranks of the CNT by trade unionists who, according to Bookchin’s account, seem to have had a better grasp of reality:

“Not only did the CNT lack the support of a majority of the Spanish people, they argued, but it lacked the support of the majority of the Spanish working class. Anarchosyndicalists were a minority within a minority. Even within the CNT membership, a large number of workers and peasants shared only a nominal allegiance to libertarian ideals. They were members of the CNT because the union was strong in their localities and work places. If these people, and the Spaniards generally, were not educated in Anarchist principles, warned the moderates, the revolution would simply degenerate into an abhorrent dictatorship of ideologues” (p. 193).

The FAI brushed such objections aside and in 1931 succeeded in capturing the CNT and, applying classic Bakuninist tactics, in Bookchin’s words, “dragged” the CNT into a number of “insurrectionary adventures”. The results were disastrous. Not only were hundreds of workers’ lives sacrificed but the CNT split. In fact, reading Bookchin’s account the thought springs to mind that the disaster that was to befall the Spanish working class might have had a chance of being avoided if the anarchist vanguardists of the FAI had left the CNT alone.

Even Bookchin questions whether an “anarchist revolution” could have been sustained in Spain in 1936. Certainly, the workers showed that they could take over and run the factories and the peasants that they could take over and cultivate the land without capitalists and landlords but, Bookchin asks, could it have lasted:

“But what would happen when everyday life began to feel the pinch of economic want of the material problems imposed not only by the Civil War but by Spain’s narrow technological base? ‘Communism will be the result of abundance,’ Santillan had warned in the spring of 1936, ‘without which it will remain only an ideal’. Could the ardor of the CNT and FAI surmount the obstacles of scarcity and material want in the basic necessities of life, obstacles that had limited the forward thrust of earlier revolutions?” (p. 284).

Bookchin only hints at a negative answer, but in the event the matter was not tested. The “anarchist revolution” was first stopped by the Republican government with the Stalinist “Communists” in the lead and then savagely crushed by the Franco fascists.


Leave a Reply